711. Lisa’s Belly

Original airdate: October 24, 2021

The premise: Bart and Lisa gain some extra pounds due to taking medicinal steroids. While Bart finds newfound kinship with the bullies and their secret basement gym at the school, Lisa becomes incredibly self-conscious of her new appearance thanks to Marge offhandedly calling her “chunky.”

The reaction: After last week’s episode, I found myself pondering over a question that’s puzzled me for a while: what exactly is The Simpsons now? Like, what is the intended goal of this series? For a show that’s lasted over three decades, I’m certainly not looking for it to be exactly the same as it once was, but there have been certain times over the years writing this blog where I find myself kind of stumped as to how to disseminate what I’m watching in terms of it being a Simpsons episode. Reading the byline of this show beforehand, I figured it would be an episode about body positivity, which it kind of is, but also kind of isn’t. A newly slightly overweight Lisa finds herself traumatized by her mother playfully (from Marge’s perspective at least) calling her “chunky.” The word manifests itself in Lisa’s self-conscious, burrowing down, and she hears the word everywhere she goes, in the first of many, many incredibly overbearing and hamfisted scenes, driving the message down as much as possible. Lisa flips out on Marge, who eventually understands why she was so upset, and the two briefly make amends, before Marge tells her that now that Lisa is done with her medication, soon she’ll be back to “normal” as her “perfect” little girl, leaving Lisa with more loaded words in her head. Ultimately, mother and daughter find themselves at a hypnotherapist, who sends them both into each other’s inner thoughts, which felt like a hybrid of “Make Room For Lisa” and that awful Inception parody. Marge sees how her seemingly innocuous words have created great strife for Lisa, while Lisa sees into Marge’s girlhood memories and her own mother’s harmful words that have plagued her. In the end, they make amends, and talk about how these words can only have power if you let them, or something to that effect. Now, all of this is well and good as a story, though obviously spelled out in a drawn out way as per usual for this show, but I just didn’t know what to make of it in the end. Given Lisa’s weight gain was temporary within the episode itself, as well as in the series in general, since we know she’s going to go back to her usual look next week, it made sense for them to pivot from just being about Lisa’s weight to a larger, related point, but that ultimately made the episode feel more weightless. But more than anything else, the story just wasn’t funny. A social satire like I assume this show still is should be able to tell stories like this in a manner that is enlightening and humorous at the same time, but there just wasn’t any kind of amusing bent to this episode to me. Matt Selman shows of this ilk emphasize the sentimental elements of their stories, sacrificing a lot of the humorous potential in the process. That’s why I find myself confused as to the modus operandi of this series now. Last week’s episode, though an Al Jean-run affair, gave me a similar feeling in its grand conclusion with Moe’s personal demons plaguing him and him proposing to Maya, two premises played almost completely straight. I’ve talked about how this show kind of became more and more a conventional sitcom as time went on, and I guess this is kind of more of that taking effect. I just don’t see what this show has to offer that is unique unto itself anymore. Apologies if this post feels more rambly and inconclusive than normal, but I’m still trying to completely formulate my thoughts on the matter. Some people may like the more emotional direction this show delves into sometimes, but it just doesn’t feel right to me the way it’s handled now.

Three items of note:
– The episode opened with the traditional Simpsons clouds, then going right to the TV with the executive producer credits, which seemed weird, since there’s been plenty of times they’ve gone right into the episode with those credits as lower thirds. Actually, all the episodes this season have done that so far, so it’s kind of strange they didn’t just do that here and gain themselves a couple more seconds of show.
– The B-plot involves a heavier Bart, once he admits his weight is due to steroids, getting in with the bully crowd and their secret gym, which they more or less pretend to actually use in-between fucking around and eating Hot Pockets. Once Bart found himself embraced by his former tormentors, I thought there was going to be a parallel created between him and Lisa, highlighting the different standards boys and girls are held to in regards to their looks. Instead, the two stories were completely separated, with Bart’s just kind of sputtering out in the end. It felt like a potentially rich vein, story and humor-wise, that just went ignored.
– The hypnotherapist was voiced by Renee Ridgeley, wife of Matt Selman, with the character partially based on her, being a breast cancer survivor with a single mastectomy. I stumbled upon a Twitter post about this new character last week, and at first scoffed about Ridgeley’s casting, but quickly pulled back after reading more about it. I mean, as someone with multiple family members affected by cancer, what kind of monster would I have to be to pissed about this? I found it a bit odd that there was never any mention from Dr. Sage about her medical history, but I guess the point is that there didn’t need to be. She’s just a regular character like anybody else, she’s not defined by her history of cancer. Before the episode aired, I figured it would fit with the body positivity theme, but since that had largely been morphed into the broader “words hurt” theme by the time she appeared, there wasn’t much need for that anymore. I guess the worst I can say about her character, as with the episode itself, is that she wasn’t funny, acting as the amazing therapist who was able to solve Lisa and Marge’s problems. I’m not expecting her to do a stand-up routine, or to be incompetent, or be a greedy shyster, but some kind of humorous quirk to remind me that I’m watching a comedy program would be nice.

710. The Wayz We Were

Original airdate: October 17, 2021

The premise: When Evergreen Terrace becomes a never-ending traffic jam, the Simpsons must confront Wayz, a navigational app to redirects traffic to residential areas. Meanwhile, Moe is reunited with his old girlfriend Maya, but is plagued with insecurity about her possibly leaving him again.

The reaction: Season 20’s “Eeny Teeny Maya Moe” is a pretty fondly remembered episode by a lot of fans, which isn’t easy to say about any episode from the last fifteen years. Surely the writing staff has noticed this, and as a result, we get the Maya sequel episode that fans have been clamoring for thirteen years after her introduction. I don’t remember caring much for “Eeny Teeny,” as it felt an overly saccharine affair with a boring, schmaltzy Moe and a rushed ending. Moe was all set to propose to Maya, as well as get height adjustment surgery for her, but Maya broke it off with him because she felt that he didn’t see her for her, only her as a little person. Except that wasn’t actually true, and she only got mad when he started making short jokes about her, but only after she made them herself, and she also did weird shit like pretend to be a doll for some reason. I don’t really remember much about Maya as a character, nor do I think there probably was much to her in the first place, but here, she is a complete blank slate. She and Moe reunite in a traffic jam, and she is still head-over-heels in love with Moe with absolutely no reservations, or explanation, as to why she wants to get back together. She off-handedly mentions she got her PhD, but we never find out in what, what she’s been doing for x amount of years, or anything like that. We get a few short clips of “Eeny Teeny” showing her and Moe together, but besides that, we’re given no re-introduction to this character who appeared in one episode over a decade ago. I feel like there are pretty dedicated fans who might not remember her episode well enough after all this time to discern who she is. So Moe and Maya are back together, and since we’re not going to develop her character or their relationship whatsoever, the bulk of the episode is about Moe dealing with his crippling anxiety that Maya might leave him again. We never go into why she left him in the first place, of course, which makes this even weirder. Why bring this character back if you’re not going to bring up anything from the previous episode? But none of that matters, because it’s all building to Moe proposing to Maya to lock that shit down (when Homer suggests “the big M,” Moe thinks he means, “murder-suicide,” again completely forgetting that he proposed to Maya in the last episode.) So Moe pops the question, Maya says yes, and then the episode ends. So, I guess they’re a permanent couple then? Just like Comic Book Guy and Kumiko, I assume this means it will take many, many years to do another episode actually examining their relationship, or giving Maya any sort of characteristic or personality trait. Like, I get the impulse of wanting to bring back this character from an episode people like, but they did absolutely nothing with her. I guess there’s people who will just be happy that Moe got a happy ending, but… why? Moe being a miserable loser leeching off of his regular customers, as well as a disgusting, perverted lowlife, are fundamental bedrocks of his character. If he’s now going to be a happily married man, they have to completely reconstruct his character, and I know they’re not going to do that. We’ll get plenty more of the same kinds of jokes with Moe, and every now and again, Maya will show up and the audience will be baffled that she still exists. I mean, I’m more than willing to be proven wrong, but once again, CBG and Kumiko is a perfect example of a “big” change in the series that ultimately proves to nothing. Let’s see what happens!

Three items of note:
– We get another guest couch gag done by Stoopid Buddy Studios, where Maggie imagines her little wooden kingdom playset comes to life. It’s all done in a similar style to their Hulu series Crossing Swords, a show that I’ve never heard anybody talk about ever, but apparently is still premiering its second season later this year. Does anybody watch that? Anyway, it’s not terrible, but nothing really memorable either.
– It’s weird that the Moe/Maya story is kind of the B-plot in this episode, with the A-plot being the Evergreen Terrace traffic jam thing, which takes up the bulk of the first two-thirds of the show, and gives us the episode title (really stretching how many times they can naming shows after The Way We Were ). The traffic never, ever stops, so a neighborhood meeting is called, but everyone just uses it to bitch about how much they hate the Simpsons. We also get a look at who apparently lives on the block: the Hibberts (I thought they’d live in a much nicer, more expensive area), Sideshow Mel (same comment), and Pamela Reed returns as Ruth Powers to give a meta joke about how it’s been two decades since Marge said hi to her. Later, Professor Frink saves the day by hacking into the navigation app’s code to remove Evergreen Terrace from the map completely, and Homer is annoyed at how everybody loves him now for fixing the problem. Or telling Frink to fix the problem. Oh, who gives a shit. It’s surprising enough that the Moe/Maya thing, something a considerably amount of fans wanted to return, is not only the B-plot here, but to such a really boring “main” story such as this.
– Crippled by his incredible anxiety, Moe spends the night in Bart’s treehouse, and when he returns to the bar the next day, Maya is already packing to leave (“You’d better speak fast, or for the second time, you’re going to lose the first good thing that ever happened to you!”) In “Eeny Teeny,” Moe’s crackpot plan to reduce his height is kind of stupid, but he gave a heartfelt speech about what Maya actually meant to her as a person, but she just left him anyway because the episode was ending. Here, rather than actually talk to Moe, Maya is just going to leave him again, despite completely dropping her entire life (whatever that is) because she just had to be with him again after all this time. Like… what? WHO is this character? In both these episodes, thanks to poor writing, she almost comes off fickle and slightly manipulative, and I know that’s completely unintentional. I look forward to an episode in season 39 where we can finally learn that Maya used to be a gymnast in college or whatever bullshit crumb of backstory they decide to give us.

709. Treehouse of Horror XXXII

Original airdate: October 10, 2021

The premise: “This Side of Parasite” is a Parasite “parody.” In “Nightmare on Elm Tree,” Bart’s treehouse comes to life and gathers an army of trees to wage war against their human oppressors. “Dead Ringer” is a “parody” of The Ring, except with TikTok instead of a videotape. Yes, you read that right.

The reaction: Here we are at another Halloween special, where I struggle in vain to try and come up with something new to say about them. No real scares or tension, unremarkable tone, parodies that don’t actually parody anything…  I’ve said all this stuff before. The first segment basically just retells the plot of Parasite up until the very end where they attempt to build atop the rich social commentary of the film by having all the “parasites” hiding under the house fight and kill themselves. I really didn’t get it. It reminded me of the Stranger Things segment where they tried to condense so much source material plotting down to a few minutes that it loses all meaning as a story. I can’t imagine it makes much sense to anyone who hasn’t seen Parasite (if you haven’t, feel free to chime in. And then go watch Parasite, it’s fantastic), and to those who have seen it, it’s just a series of scenes you recognize from that movie you saw. The third segment is not as slavish to the source material, but it’s equally as dull with Lisa uncovering the mystery of the ghost girl killing all her classmates, with the “twist” being that when the girl comes to get her, Lisa bests her by smothering her with her friendship, resulting in the ghost girl banishing herself because everybody hates Lisa. Really uninspired stuff. Along that vein, the second segment felt incredibly bare bones. While I like the impulse of writing a story about an actual treehouse of horror, it’s basically nothing but the trees going on a rampage, and then they kill all the humans. It reminded me of “Night of the Dolphin,” but without the Snorky character, so there’s no story other than a bunch of pop culture jokes to fill time (Little Shop of Horrors! The Wizard of Oz! A Tree Rollins cameo!) The Treehouse of Horrors are normally pretty forgettable, but this one felt like the weakest I’ve seen in a while, without much of anything I could even charitably call out as a highlight.

Three items of note:
– This year’s special was advertised as having five stories instead of three. The opening is a riff on Disney with Bambi (Bart) fearing his mother (Marge) has been shot and killed just like the original film, but a Homer buck just ends up goring the hunter (Mr. Burns) to death. I’d hesitate to call this a parody… I honestly don’t even know what to call it. Between segments two and three is a brief visual poem read by not-Vincent Price, “The Telltale Bart,” depicted in a twisted storybook style of Bart getting up to all sorts of mischief. This segment is actually an expansion of a bit from a season 18 episode “Yokel Chords,” where Bart terrifies his classmates with the legend of “Dark Stanley,” where we see his nightmarish tale come to life in the same sort of Edward Gorey-inspired art style. However, watching that clip again, the art direction is pretty striking and unique, and by itself, it’s a pretty fun and inspired sequence. “The Telltale Bart,” on the other hand, has the Gorey-style designs, but none of the interesting visual direction, it’s just animated straight ahead like it were a normal section of the episode, just in a different style. It also just abruptly ends with Maggie killing the Vincent Price storyteller for the story taking too long, which was just random. In the end, it ultimately came off as kind of boring, especially given how they executed a similarly stylized sequence so much better thirteen years earlier.
– It’s so strange how we get “parodies” of Parasite and The Ring in the same episode; the former being an example of the writers desperately trying to riff on current pop culture, but being far too late to the party (also, no fault of theirs, the pandemic has kind of wiped all pre-2020 pop culture from any kind of relevancy anyway), and the latter just feels like such an uninspired pull, given the American Ring is almost twenty years old. But the bulk of the original Treehouse of Horrors were based upon older movies or Twilight Zone segments, so what made them so different? Well, on top of the show being produced in the 90s when these other works felt more timeless in an age when there were only so many media outlets, these episodes also actually crafted real stories with these characters, and many times with some kind of unique twist or hook that was unique to the Simpsons universe. Homer goes mad in the “Shinning” house because of no beer or TV. The Talking Tina doll from The Twilight Zone is re-imagined as a Talking Krusty. I never saw the source material of any of these segments  until much later, but these stories made sense to me, made logical sense, and most importantly, were incredibly funny, completely on their own. Meanwhile, the Parasite segment featured no real Simpsons spin on the film whatsoever, and like I said before, must not make a whole lot of sense to someone who hadn’t seen the movie.
– Yes, it’s true, the Ring segment features all your favorite Springfield Elementary students saying the word “TikTok.” It’s as awkward as it sounds. I mean, I guess it’s no different than Dolph writing on his Apple Newton way back in the day? But at least that had a joke to go with it. Whatever. Grey Griffin gets in a few more lines as Sherri and Terri, and I think she’s starting to sound a bit better. It’s not perfect, but it felt close enough that it didn’t sound jarringly off as it did a bit in her first couple of appearances.

708. Bart’s in Jail!

Original airdate: October 3, 2021

The premise: Abe falls for a phone scam, wiring $10,000 to supposedly get Bart out of jail, money that he originally was saving as the Simpsons’ inheritance. Homer is outraged at his father’s gullibility, but when he falls for a scam himself, the family decide to track down the swindler and get their money back.

The reaction: As this episode entered its third act, it began to remind me a lot of the morality play episodes of the show’s early years, where the family deals with right and wrong and the karmic consequences within. I’m not looking to do any comparing and contrasting, but the way this episode builds to its finale feels so much more heavy-handed and ultimately schmaltzy than I care for. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. The premise and character dynamics of this episode aren’t really that bad to start: Abe is swindled by a phone scammer who pretends to be a random grandchild on the phone calling from jail. Learning he’s been hoodwinked, he feels ashamed, while Homer, discovering his newly lost inheritance he never knew existed, can’t berate his father enough for it. He cockily claims that he’s too sharp to be scammed, and we know it’s only a matter of time before he easily falls for one himself, in the form of a MLM scheme involving fancy cut-ware. This all feels logical and within character, and it might have all worked if the storytelling were tighter and they peppered some more jokes in. When the family ventures to find the scammer and confront them, Marge affirms that this is a matter of good winning over evil, and how the good apples outweigh the bad. Upon discovering a sea of soulless telemarketers working under an unknown entity who all leave the office with zero consequence, Marge breaks, giving into the inevitable sin of existence, going along with the rest of the family’s absconding with the scammers’ swindled gift cards. This is all pretty ham fisted enough, before we get a food-induced mass hallucination of Loki, God of mischief (thankfully not appearing like the Marvel character), who flat-out says his “prize” is obtaining “an honest woman’s belief in the good of mankind.” Marge’s faith is seemingly shattered, but upon seeing a supposedly honest woman at a gas station asking strangers for a $20 and being ignored, she has an important choice to make (“Is this it? From now on, I live in a world where nobody trusts anybody? …no, not me!”) She lends the woman money, who pledges to mail her the cash back, and two weeks later, sure enough, Marge gets an envelope with a $20 and a note, “THANK YOU FOR THE TRUST.” I honestly thought this pathetic pablum would just be the ending, but in our final moments, it’s revealed that Abe sent the letter (“I’m out another twenty bucks, but I gave them something to believe in.”) This is overly saccharine enough, but I feel like it could have landed better if there was any sort of interplay between Abe and Marge, or him reacting to her repeated attempts to restore her faith in humanity. Marge stood up for Abe against Homer’s anger toward him in her trying to get him help, but there was no connection between the two beyond that. It just comes off as another aggressively sentimental ending that feels very unearned, and worst yet, with no jokes. I don’t expect these emotional moments to be undercut with a joke, or sabotaged in some humorous way, but there’s a way to balance the honest sentiment with humor in the way that great comedies should, as this show was once the champion of. But here, it’s just played straight and we’re expected to be touched, I guess? This is definitely a more successful outing than the premiere, but the final act is a perfect representation of how this show settles for easy sentimentality over real substance.

Three items of note:
– This episode was written by Nick Dahan, who was a producer’s assistant for about a decade before getting a chance to write a script of his own. There actually were a couple of jokes that landed in the first two acts, which I was surprised to see (Homer pontificating about his money dilemma in bed, causing “whip-cash,” the different people in the scammers support group, Homer’s overconfidence in his ability to not be scammed). Looking ahead, this season’s actually got a bunch of first time writers coming up, but then again, there were a bunch of those last season too, and as I continue to repeat, the credited writer doesn’t seem to matter much as all these episodes end up coming out more or less the same flavor of bland slop. Also, I think Matt Selman is now the joint-show runner with Al Jean for either most or all of this next season, so I’m prepared for more treacly bullshit endings like this one going forward.
– The family’s weird shared fever dream ends with Loki announcing his leave to add more blackout days for Disneyland annual pass holders, before morphing into Mickey Mouse and bolting out the door. Some people worried that after the Fox acquisition that Disney would “ruin” the show and exert more creative control, but it seems like with jokes like this and the ending of “Bart the Bad Guy” last season where we saw a bomb planted under Homer and Marge’s bed care of Disney/Marvel, it seems like the writers are still doing their “bite the hand that feeds” jokes. But it all definitely feels much more fang-less, given the Disney+ Simpsons shorts that are just full-on lovefests for Disney’s most beloved IPs: Star Wars, Marvel, and a newly announced third short to be released on “Disney+ Day” this November. I can’t wait to see what beloved Disney property they “parody” next!
– A one-off gag with Loki involves him showing off his many other forms, which includes Jesus Christ, as well as Bill Cipher, the maniacal triangle demon from Gravity Falls, with a three word bite by Alex Hirsch, show creator and voice of Bill (“Buy crypto, suckers!”) It’s a rather odd guest appearance, although since I assume most Simpsons diehards nowadays skew on the younger side and are overall animation fans in general, I can see how a lot of fans would appreciate this cameo. I love Gravity Falls, and knowing how big a Simpsons fan Alex Hirsch is and how big an influence the show was on his work, I’m sure he was absolutely thrilled to be on the show. It’s kind of funny how Bill looks just like his Gravity Falls self, sadly lacking a mouth to slap a Simpsons style overbite on. I guess it’s not too different than the King of the Hill cast’s appearance in “Bart Star” where they’re just sitting there in their flesh-colored, Mike Judge-drawn glory. It’s kind of weird, but whatever.